206UP.COM’s Top 10 SEA Hip-Hop Albums of 2010

As a hip-hop and baseball obsessed youth, I constantly formulated Top 10 Lists. Athletes, shoes, songs, movies — if it was rate-able, I was Top 10’in it, practically weekly. This is probably why 206UP.COM’s year-end list is my favorite post to write. Last year I waxed not-so-poetically on how, in 2005, Seattle’s underground rap scene single-handedly renewed my faith in the music. This year my affinity for Town rap became even tighter knit.

The albums, songs, free downloads, and videos that originated strictly in Seattle were enough to keep my hip-hop appetite satisfied through the whole year. Not to say excellent new albums by nationally known artists (Big Boi, The Roots, Kanye West, etc.) weren’t heavy on my playlist, or that the underground movements in other cities weren’t relevant. It’s just that hip-hop in the 2-0-6 is so grown now, more than it’s ever been, and the voices, perspectives and spectrum of sounds in our Town are talented and diverse enough to keep my ears fully attuned.

While there were some glaring omissions in 2010 (the new Physics LP being the most significant, for me), there were some other big advancements and unexpected surprises:

The emergence of La (formerly known as Language Arts) as a force to be reckoned with (at least on wax). This cat blew through like a Northeaster on his two LP’s, Gravity and Roll With The Winners, spitting outlandish braggadocio unlike any other rapper in town.

Two career-defining performances by Blue Scholars. The first was at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, which I wrote about, here. At this show, the Scholars proved to the hip-hop world that they could hang in the Mecca, legitimizing their voice on a whole new level. (Macklemore’s opening performance was definitely notable, too.) The other show folks were buzzing about was the City Arts music festival performance at The Paramount, the first time a local hip-hop group rocked the venerable theater’s stage. Blue Scholars made history, nationally and locally, with these two shows.

This year also saw artists better known for their previously established collaborative endeavors break out with successful new excursions. JFK and Onry Ozzborn both dropped excellent LP’s independent of their legendary Grayskul partnership — JFK on the straight-up solo tip and Onry Ozzborn in collaboration with Chi-town producer Zavala. RA Scion reinvented himself with his Victor Shade project with producer MTK. And Gabriel Teodros and Amos Miller connected in Brooklyn, forming the impromptu collab Air 2 A Bird after being rebuffed in London on the eve of their world tour.

But enough with the recap. The following list represents what 206UP.COM sees as the best Seattle hip-hop albums of the year. There was no real science to compiling the list and, when it comes down to it, these things are matters of pure conjecture, subject to debate and relentless criticism of the people who made them (which this blog always welcomes, by the way). Enjoy the list and Happy New Year!

Honorable mentions:

JFK – Building Wings on the Way Down
LaRue – Saturn Returns
Avatar Young Blaze – Russian Revolution Mixtape

10. State of the Artist – SeattleCaliFragilisticExtraHellaDopeness

The album equivalent of a 2-0-6 hip-hop houseparty, by design SeattleCal wasn’t exactly an official debut LP for State of the Artist, but a showcase for much of the talent in the city. The three SOTA emcees were consistently outshone by their guests and a lot of times the lyrics didn’t seem to make any sense. As strictly a party album, however, there wasn’t one better.

9. Victor Shade – Victor Shade

The re-birth of RA Scion as the rap superhero Victor Shade saw a major shift in musical tone, but not a dramatic change in delivery or aesthetic. RA’s lyrics are still dense as hell and require close examination on paper in order to understand their meaning. It all sounded great, however, over MTK’s knocking production. RA Scion (aka. Victor Shade) remains the most professorial battle rapper in Seattle.

8. Air 2 A Bird – Crow Hill

A soaring achievement considering the bare-bones tools Air 2 A Bird (Gabriel Teodros and Amos Miller) had to work with when making this album in Brooklyn. In its creation, Crow Hill captured the very essence of hip-hop: eloquent poetics, masterful improvisation and a revolutionary spirit  (albeit on a quieter and more reserved scale). This album proves that hip-hop executed with class and panache can be just as effective as the bombastic variety.

7. La – Roll With The Winners

This “debut” album from the emcee formerly known as “Language Arts” featured expert throwback production by an unknown producer named Blu-Ray, whose heavy soul sampling sounds like The Alchemist on his most nostalgic day. The highlight, though, was La’s take-no-prisoners lyrical work. Hearing raw talent like this is akin to watching Allen Iverson play basketball for the first time. At this stage in his career La is still all fearless potential, but on paper he might already be the most technically sound rapper in the city.

6. Helladope – Helladope (aka Return to Planet Rock)

Helladope’s Tay Sean is far too young a cat to be making music with this much soul and expert tribute to the R&B and funk of yesteryear. Still, he accomplished the feat with ease. Along with emcee/vocalist Jerm, Helladope’s debut album offers a fresh take on the P-funk/G-funk rap amalgamation that originated in Southern California in the early 90’s. The sound is updated here with extraterrestrial gimmickry that amuses but isn’t essential to the album’s vibe.

5. J. Pinder – Code Red EP

This star-studded EP by Seattle ex-pat J. Pinder had a professional sheen equal to most major label releases. And it was free, to boot. Unsurprisingly, the folks who built the foundation of Code Red are either consummate hip-hop professionals or quickly on their way: Vitamin D, Jake One and Kuddie Fresh, among others. Pinder’s easy flow and accessible subject matter made this album easy to ride for.

4. Dark Time Sunshine – Vessel

Vessel exists in the same category as the number two album on this list, The Stimulus Package. The lyrical work is quintessential Onry Ozzborn (here reborn as Cape Cowen) but the production is a masterful concoction of headphone-oriented beats that only a cold soul from Chicago could assemble. Producer Zavala cultivates a terrain of rich electronica that feels organic, as if grown and harvested with the precision of robot farmers. The most sonically progressive SEA hip-hop album this side of Shabazz Palaces’ 2009 masterpiece.

3. Jake One & Freeway – The Stimulus Package

At first consideration it seemed strange to include this release featuring an emcee so deeply associated with the city of Philadelphia. Fifty percent of the album artist credit is from Seattle though so how could it be excluded? The obvious truth is Jake One had as much (if not more) to do with the quality of The Stimulus Package as Freeway. Jake has a knack for creating fresh ideas while staying inside the bounds of traditional boom-bap. Stimulus is his best and most cohesive collection of beats, ever.

2. Candidt – Sweatsuit & Churchshoes

Candidt’s long-delayed Sweatsuit & Churchshoes is a refreshing and dynamic package of West Coast B-boy rap. Every local young buck in the game should take this album as the new hip-hop gospel for the way it connects Old School and New. Candidt doesn’t sound like anyone else in the city and his willingness to experiment with new sounds while keeping strict West Coast principles earns SS&CS major props.

1. Def Dee & La (fka. Language Arts) – Gravity

Producer Def Dee caught lightning in a bottle with his masterful production work on this album. Gravity pays direct tribute to NYC Golden Era boom-bap and is unapologetic in its revivalist ideology. It also manages to sound fresh and timeless, however, and is the most musically cohesive album of these ten. Emcee La officially established himself as one of the best rappers in the city. He plays it cooler than on his proper solo debut, Roll With The Winners, but that’s because the music requires him to. Gravity stands firmly to the side of Seattle’s so-called “Third Wave hip-hop,” a position that’s especially important to the purist set. All the current innovation in local rap is a great thing, but so is the creation of more traditional forms like Gravity. It reminds everyone that hip-hop made in our isolated corner of the map is inextricably linked to the region of its genesis.

Album Reviews Best of 2010

REVIEW: “Victor Shade” (Victor Shade)

In the Fall of last year, emcee RA Scion adopted the new rap persona Victor Shade, named after a character from Marvel Comics’ The Avengers series. The reasons for the change seemed to be two-fold: 1) an intentional distancing from his well-established identity as the emcee half of Common Market, a group (unfortunately) on indefinite hiatus; and 2) a tribute to his late brother-in-law, a comic book aficionado who personally bestowed the Victor Shade identity upon RA. Hip-hop fans around Town already know the man, born Ryan Abeo, as a dramatic stage presence whose shows have veered into performance art territory. So it’s unsurprising that his new Victor Shade project would be accompanied by a dramatic and well-documented change in his rap alter-ego.

It’s a change that serves to blatantly announce his re-entry to the rap game sans his previous collaborator, DJ/producer Sabzi, a notable proposition not just because of how well-entrenched Common Market is in the local rap psyche, but because the two artists seemed like natural extensions of each other, a rare duality that many don’t find throughout an entire career. Well, in case you’re wondering, Common Market fans, there’s no need to fear as this new iteration, while certainly different sonically, is not an uncomfortable deviation from what you’re used to.

Common Market’s last major release, 2008’s Tobacco Road, was a sprawling exercise in conceptual hip-hop. It featured a few classic moments but ultimately was too long, its length consistent with what one would expect from RA Scion, a rapper with so much on his mind that his lyrics literally required hip-hop Cliff’s Notes (which he occasionally provided on his blog). CM’s self-titled debut, on the other hand, was of more manageable length and should now be considered a local rap classic. Like Blue Scholars’ first album, it perfectly replicated the mind-state of Seattle’s liberal populace: current but old-school; urban but organic; aggressive with its principles but…neighborly. Victor Shade finds a comfortable middle ground between the two CM albums. And, while the rapper in question might balk at any extensive comparison, the exposition is necessary because RA Scion, as he existed in Common Market, is our only point of reference.

A new producer means a new sound. Everett beat-maker MTK is responsible for all twelve tracks on Victor Shade. His style is notably more aggressive than Sabzi’s, which isn’t to say the CM composer didn’t bring out the natural battle-rhymer in RA. (As previously noted, theirs was a relationship based on mutual ability, essentially meeting each other halfway in their artistry.) If anything, RA seemed to bring out the battle-producer in Sabzi. MTK, on the other hand, brings a grenade to a knife fight, meeting Victor Shade at the gravel pit where he’s already most comfortable. With monitors drenched in gasoline and a lit match in hand, their fusion on wax is generally incendiary. For lack of a more elegant editorial: the sh*t totally f*cking knocks. MTK’s assailing production is a perfect vehicle for the natural go-hard tendencies of the rapper.

Yet, with a flow so conducive to battle-rhyming, it’s still impossible to overlook Victor Shade as a pure poet. The density of rhyme and structure is simultaneously his greatest strength and overarching flaw. Similar to Talib Kweli, it’s often hard to follow, understand, and digest what he’s saying. That seems like a petty and nearly useless criticism when considering most rappers don’t say sh*t, but it is what it is.

In Common Market, RA Scion was a poet for the proletarian class and Victor Shade keeps the same company here. Although this time he fancies himself as a bit of a hero for those folks, walking amongst them but not altogether of them. Subversive critiques of our social conditions are the rule of the day (“Bodega Politics”, “Boots”, and “Soothsayer”, for example). Victor Shade requires that you hear more than listen in order to get the picture. For some reason, that exercise is a challenge contemporary hip-hop heads struggle with, probably because we’re too busy breaking our necks to the beat when we should be taking notes (a symptom of the relatively new producer-as-celebrity corollary). The value in Victor Shade’s treatise can only be found in taking the time to listen. And, like RA Scion before him, he’ll probably only respect us if we accept the provocation.

The greatest compliment one might pay to Victor Shade/RA Scion, is that listening to his music is a totally holistic experience. The emotive effects from his well-suited production choices, combined with his aptitude for meaningful lyricism (often existing on some higher esoteric plane), create a multi-layered experience uncommon in most rap music. It’s easy to draw a straight line between Victor Shade and artists in the hip-hop family tree to whom he’s directly related. Those folks include the likes of KRS-One, Chuck D, and Dead Prez. And, similar to those rap brethren, listening to Victor Shade casually is like trying to read really good literature on a noisy metro bus: you can get a sense of what’s happening, but you can’t fully appreciate it until you take the time to deconstruct it. Like Common Market before him, Victor Shade demands his listeners be active. Passivity, ultimately, is for suckas when it comes to this brand of intellectual hip-hop.

Album Reviews

DOWNLOAD: “Circus Hounds” (Victor Shade)

In case you didn’t already know, rappers take their emcee names pretty seriously. Some almost have a different pseudonym for every t-shirt hanging in their closet. Local cats, however, have been mercifully spare when it comes to carrying more than one moniker. For Ryan Abeo (aka RA Scion), a new name is synonymous with a new musical direction.

(Click here to continue reading at Seattle Show Gal…)


I Have A New Blog Moniker!

Just kidding. The name of my blog is remaining 206-UP! I haven’t been heavy in the blog game long enough to warrant a change in my moniker. But someday, if I keep pushing, maybe, just maybe, I’ll be able to possess not one, but two blog personas, as have so many athletes and rappers before me…

Anyway, the point of this post was to make those unawares aware of RA Scion’s new rap moniker, Victor Shade. It sounds like a superhero handle which, in fact, it is. It’s also a window blinds company in Saint Louis, Missouri, but that’s not important here. What is important, is that it appears Common Market has been (temporarily?) shelved in favor of RA’s new collaborative effort with local producer, MTK.

In the perpetual style of all-seriousness, as is RA’s modus operandi, he’s taking this new project, well, serious — as is evidenced by these words spoken to The Stranger’s venerable hip-hop commentator Larry Mizell, Jr.

In any event, I’m bummed (boo!) that we may have seen the end of Common Market, but excited (yay!) for the birth of the Victor Shade project, the genesis of which has been (apparently) some time in the making, but its official release upon the masses will happen at this show.

Earcandy's Bumbershoot Kickoff PartyYou can sample a collabo track (“Kasase”) between MTK and RA on MTK’s Myspace page (linked above). It sounds like RA’s — ahem, excuse me, Victor Shade’s — battle-ready flow is fully intact, which isn’t a surprise. But he does sound fresh and new rhyming over MTK’s RZA-style beat. It’s dope. I like it. And I’ll probably like Victor Shade, even though my Lady tells me I don’t do well with change.

More later, fam.

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